From “why” to “why not”?

Accelerating the race to zero fossil fuels

Chythenyen Devika Kulasekaran21/04/2022

The current Russia-Ukraine war, is a wake-up call for countries to invest in renewable energy sources for energy security. The European Union, for example, imports nearly half of its gas (45 percent) from Russia, and policy experts have long advocated for the Union's energy independence. Famous economists such as Nicholas Stern have called for governments to invest quickly in renewable energy because it is cheaper to do so now, but these pleas have been rejected for a long time. However, countries appear to be more interested in renewable energy today due to the energy security it provides. Energy security may be defined as the availability of adequate and dependable energy sources at a reasonable cost. It is a pressing issue because energy demand is rising as a result of rapid economic growth, rising living standards, climate change and resource depletion. Countries that have historically suffered setbacks due to a lack of natural resources, such as fossil fuels, are increasingly embracing renewable energy due to its near universal availability. Increased use of renewable energy has numerous societal benefits, including mitigating climate change, lowering air pollution emissions, and improving energy security. Moreover, oil and gas prices have always been volatile, prone to price shocks that even economists, policymakers, consumers, and financial markets have been unable to forecast. Renewable energy, on the other hand, has been immune from such price fluctuations.

Renewable energy is bountiful –

The remarkable diversity and bountiful nature of renewable sources of energy can be seen within the EU member states. For example, Norway produces 136.4 Twh or 90% of electricity from hydro power plants, Denmark meets 47% of its electricity need from wind, and biomethane has reached a 90% share in Swedish vehicle gas. According to a study, countries that embrace renewable energy quickly will profit, while countries with the most fossil fuel reserves will incur an inevitable stranded assets valued at $11-$14 trillion by 2036. When compared to 2010 prices, the cost of solar energy generation has dropped by 82%, while wind energy has dropped by 39%. Furthermore, renewable energy facilities can have a useful life of more than two decades, and can typically be built at nearly twice the speed of conventional gas-fired power plants. Wind turbines, for example, are expected to last approximately 20 years, while on photovoltaic systems are frequently operational for 25 to 40 years. Ireland is considered as the country with the greatest potential for biogas production in the EU due to its temperate climate and abundant biomass supply, Small-scale, community owned biogas plants could play a part in realizing Ireland’s goal of a “Just Transition”. The same can be said wind energy, as Ireland already has the third highest per capita installed wind power in the world and meets about 36.3% of its electrical demands from wind. This is in spite of the fact that the development of off-shore wind in Ireland is still in its infancy and Ireland enjoys a vast maritime area which is 10 times bigger than its land area! However, when it comes to renewable energy, there is no "one size fits all" solution. The key is to have a diverse mix of sources spread across a wide area, such as solar, wind power, biogas, biomass, and geothermal sources, among others depending on local conditions.

Not all that glitters is gold!

In the quest for renewable energy, and ever-depleting land resources, many developed countries have adopted incinerator technologies, which are dubbed as “waste to energy” plants. In fact, electricity generated by burning waste in incinerators produces more pollutants than electricity generated by coal. And the most advanced incinerators simply capture the pollutants and convert them to other by-products such as ash and sludge, which are eventually disposed in landfills! The truth is, that they are never really eliminated. Incineration discourages the development of more sustainable waste reduction and waste recycling strategies. In Ireland, close to 46% of waste is incinerated resulting in a reduction of recycling rates from 41% in 2016, to 37% in 2019. It is important that countries do not opt for “quick fixes” by discounting the future damages they could cause.

Cautious optimism -

Though most renewable energy is now less expensive than fossil fuels, this levelized cost of energy ignores the "when, how, and why" of energy generation. To make the best use of renewable energy and increase baseload, an urgent and immediate investment in "smart grid" technology is required. However, scaling up renewable energy to become “carbon neutral” invariably means more mining. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the push for electric vehicles alone will necessitate a 40-fold increase in lithium and nickel production, as well as a more than 20-fold increase in copper, graphite, and cobalt production, compared to 2020 levels. Renewable energy is not perfect, and no form of energy is! Moving to a low consumption economy might be the way forward and the EU set a precedent in 2020 when peak energy demand  started to fall. However, energy consumption in the Global South has risen vigorously as seen in China, where per capita electricity consumption almost doubled between 2010 and 2020. The Brundtland report released almost 35 years ago predicted that the environmental crisis, development crisis and energy crisis are all the same. It is imperative that we plan sustainable development that places planetary boundaries and social boundaries on the same pedestal as advocated by “doughnut economics”. Above all, in our quest for “renewable energy”, we need to stop compartmentalization of various problems and work on holistic solutions that place the people and planet above profits. Community-owned business models such as the Templederry Wind Farm and the Aran Islands Energy Co-operative in Ireland present a promising way forward!

Posted in: Environment

Chythenyen Devika Kulasekaran

Chythenyen is an intern at TASC pursuing his master's in International Relations. He is also a senior editor at "Dublin Law and Politics Review" and an influencer at the "International Council for Circular Economy". He has close to 15 years of experience in activism, social entrepreneurship, waste management and sustainability. 


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